It’s time to fess up… We’ve all been there. You get home from a late night at work at 6:00pm (or even later!) and you realize you don’t have anything planned for dinner. So you grab that package of chicken breasts or hamburger patties out of the freezer, and toss them in a sink full of hot water so they thaw – fast! (I’ve been there myself, so no judgement here!)
Yes, this is a very fast way to get frozen meat thawed in a hurry. But is it the safest way?
It turns out, this way isn’t very safe at all. Let’s talk about why thawing meats quickly in hot water (or all day long on the counter) isn’t safe for your family, and then we’ll talk about the way you can safely thaw frozen meats.
The great thing about freezing meat is that it keeps it safe for a long time. Any bacteria that are on the meat are put into a sort of hibernation – they can’t grow, they can’t multiply, and they can’t cause you any problems. But those pesky bacteria aren’t all killed, and that’s where the trouble can happen.
As meat is thawing, the temperature starts to increase. When it gets to 40 degrees F (that’s still pretty darn cold!), the bacteria wake up and can start to multiply. Even if the center of that pound of ground beef stays frozen, the outer part can be warmer than 40 degrees, and bacteria can multiply in the warmer part of the food. Here’s the issue. You can eat a few bacteria and not have a problem – the acid in your stomach and your body’s immune system will fight them off. But if you eat too many bacteria (and the number here is different for every type of bacteria), you’ll get sick. Cooking meat completely should kill all the bacteria there, but the more bacteria you start with the harder it is to kill them all.
So the goal of thawing our frozen meats is to keep the temperature of the entire piece of meat below 40 degrees F the whole time – right up until it is time to cook it. Here’s how to do it:
The first option is to thaw meat safely in your refrigerator. This takes some planning ahead. Most meats will take at least 24 hours in the refrigerator to thaw. (So think about tomorrow’s dinner when you’re cooking tonight’s dinner. You’ll be one step ahead, and can even have someone else start if you’re running late the next day!) Larger items like a roast, a chicken, or a turkey will need even longer. Plan on a minimum of 24 hours of thaw time for every 5 pounds of meat. When you’re working with meats like seafood, poultry, or ground meats they will still be good in the refrigerator for 1-2 days after they are thawed. Cuts like roasts, steaks, and chops will be good for 3-5 days in the refrigerator after they are thawed.
Remember, many meats will “leak” a little bit as they thaw. Keep them on a plate in your refrigerator to save yourself a big mess tomorrow!
Your second option is to thaw meat safely in cold water. Remember, we’re shooting for a steady temperature of just 40 degrees F, so this is some pretty cold water! Even with a big ice cube floating in it, the water will warm up towards room temperature. So unless you want to crank the AC down to 40, you’ll need to change the water every 30 minutes. Depending on the size of the frozen meat you are starting with, this can take anywhere from 1-5 hours to get the meat thawed and ready to cook. If you use the cold water method to thaw meat, it should be cooked immediately.
Your third option is to thaw meat safely in the microwave. Most newer microwaves have a “defrost” button. Make use of that button! If yours doesn’t, it will take a little bit of experimentation to get your thaw on. Start with your microwave at 50% power, and microwave the meat for 2-3 minutes. Check it, and add more time if you need to. Be careful and don’t add too much time at once, because the outside parts of the meat may start to get hot and cook before the inside is thawed completely. If you thaw meat in the microwave, it should be cooked immediately.
For more information about how to safely thaw meat, check out the United States Department of Agriculture recommendations – “The Big Thaw.”
Tell us your secret – how many times in the last month have you thawed something the wrong way? Will you use the “right” way now?